The Democrats’ Pain Threshold

How much danger is the party really in?

As a doctor, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean probably has some familiarity with patients obsessed with their health. That’s a good thing, since he now heads a party that is likewise obsessed. As the presidential-nominating fight intensifies and shows no sign of ending, voters and party elites are increasingly worried that the party might not survive the enduring contest. Mario Cuomo said a close race could be “ruinous”; House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer warned of a major fissure; and Donna Brazile asked, in Time magazine, “Who opened up the gates of hell?”

Both Obama and Clinton have developed durable and loyal constituencies. Clinton has secured less-affluent voters and white women, and Obama has built support from liberals, younger voters, and African-Americans. Because the loyalties map along gender and racial lines, the potential for volatility increases, as supporters interpret an attack on the candidate as an attack on themselves. At times, you can sort Obama and Clinton supporters by their grievances—those who were offended when Obama said Clinton was “likable enough” or others who took umbrage when Bill Clinton compared Obama to Jesse Jackson.

The candidates occasionally promise to play nice, or they speak to each other cordially on the Senate floor. Or they praise each other at the end of debates. But shortly after each peace dance, the war drums start again. Advisers on a seemingly constant round of conference calls raise questions about the rival candidate’s honesty, judgment, and temperament. Even if the candidates don’t take it personally, their supporters do. The question that now attends each new feint and jab is this: What is the pain threshold for the two constituencies? How much bickering and fighting can each withstand before hard feelings lock in and supporters decide that no matter how many calls for unity they may hear, they will stay home on Election Day if their guy or gal loses—or perhaps even support John McCain.

Beyond the daily slights, the Democratic Party seems to have been tricked by Karl Rove or Rumpelstiltskin into designing a delegate-selection process that offers a range of opportunities for Clinton and Obama supporters to feel shortchanged and cheated. The unresolved question of whether to hold do-over elections in Michigan and Florida is one front on which supporters can feel they are somehow getting shortchanged, but that’s only an appetizer course for the big meal of woe that activists might have to eat over the role of superdelegates at the party convention in Denver.

The proper role of superdelegates is so undefined that either side could feel entitled to moral outrage, though Obama clearly has the advantage in this argument and is trying to exploit it. If superdelegates back Clinton and reverse the will of the pledged delegates who have supported Obama, his voters say they will revolt. “It will be an explosion,” agrees John Edwards’ strategist, Joe Trippi. Particularly angry will be the first-time voters Obama has brought into the world of national politics with a promise of openness and transparency.

Obama supporters are using this threat of an explosion as leverage with the superdelegates, who have the power to avert the nightmare scenario—or give birth to it. “If the superdelegates intervene and get in the way and say, ‘Oh no, we are going to determine what’s best,’ there will be chaos at the convention,” said Obama supporter and Richmond, Va., Mayor Douglas Wilder, who raised the specter of the 1968 convention riots. “If you think 1968 was bad, you watch 2008. It will be worse.” When fear of chaos hasn’t worked, threats of specific retaliation have been issued. On Meet the Press, Obama supporter Bill Bradley said superdelegates who hold public office will face primary challenges the next time around if they don’t follow the expressed will of their constituents.

To balance out the pitch, Obama will use the threat of a party crackup in a softer way, using the recent rounds of shoving between the campaigns as a frame for a speech in which he will pitch himself as a conciliator. He will not only be promising Democrats that he has a way to rescue the party from eating itself, but he will try to reinvigorate the power of his rhetoric. Clinton has effectively used Obama’s talent for oratory against him in recent weeks, claiming he promises little more than “just words.” But in Philadelphia on Tuesday, Obama will try to show how he can effectively address a seemingly intractable problem using the very rhetoric that Clinton has criticized.

The Obama camp is hoping for one of two outcomes: Either the nearly 300 remaining uncommitted superdelegates will get spooked and flood to him, putting him over the top for the nomination; or, in a more cinematic move, a handful of superdelegates already pledged to Clinton will defect, go to her, and ask that she stop her campaign to avoid a fight.

Obama benefits from the prospect of chaos, but that’s not to suggest that his nomination would be pain-free. Clinton’s relentless argument that Obama is not ready to be commander in chief may have opened a door for her supporters to back McCain. In a recent Pew Research poll, 25 percent of Hillary’s supporters said they would consider voting for McCain, whereas only 10 percent of Obama’s supporters said they would consider doing so. Now, this plays in her favor as a competing argument she can make to the supers.

Many of Clinton’s supporters, particularly women, also warn that they feel Obama has benefited from a free ride in the press and has taken advantage of barely veiled sexism. Clinton tellingly referred supporters to the analysis of ABC’s Cokie Roberts, who said this of the reaction some women have to Obama: “Here is this woman, she’s worked hard, she’s done it all the way you’re supposed to do it, and then this cute young man comes in and says a bunch of sweet, you know, nothings, and pushes you out of the way. And a lot of women are looking at that and saying, ‘There goes my life.’ “

There have been hard-fought Democratic primaries before, and delegates have always found a way to pick a nominee. But that person hasn’t always gone on to win. In 1968, 1980, and 1984, Democrats fought among themselves and lost to the Republicans in the general election. So, what are this year’s party hand-wringers to do? There aren’t any easy solutions. Solving the delegate puzzle is in the hands of the risk-averse superdelegates, and lowering the temperature of the daily tit for tat is in the hands of sleep-deprived aides. Perhaps Howard Dean’s best move would be to prescribe everyone a sedative.